ith the fallout from last month’s knock-down, drag-out fight between Republican Hamilton County Commissioners and the city over funds to fix Music Hall and Union Terminal still floating in the air, Democrats have sensed an opportunity to unseat Commissioner Chris Monzel in the upcoming November election.
But there’s a catch. The Democrats’ candidate, Sean Patrick Feeney, is 27 years old, has raised only $400 and has never run for a county-wide office. Meanwhile, Monzel has stacked more than $200,000 toward his reelection, campaign finance records show, and wields the significant advantages of incumbency.
The race will also pit progressive against progressive. Feeney will have competition from write-in candidate former Cincinnati City Councilman Jim Tarbell, who opposed Monzel as the Democrats’ official candidate for the commissioners seat in 2010, getting 44 percent of the vote to Monzel’s 56 percent.
The big question for the party is how it ended up in this position in a vital race for a seat that could have shifted the three-member County Commissioners board back to a Democratic majority. Feeney is considered a long shot to win that seat, and Tarbell’s write-in status dims his chances.
But neither is daunted by the long odds.
“Seeing what the Republican majority on the commission has been up to in the past four years has been a little bit scary,” Feeney said in a recent phone interview. “I stepped up because someone has to run against Chris Monzel.”
Tarbell acknowledges that his chances are “one hundred to one,” but says it’s not necessarily about that.
“Those aren’t the kinds of things that scare me,” he said during a recent interview at his home in the Pendleton District. “You win some and you lose some. That’s not the point. I have to do this. I can’t stand it. I have to give it everything I have and let the chips fall where they may. It’s about keeping the conversation going.”
Tarbell, 71, has significant recognition in the community. He’s run a famous music venue (the Ludlow Garage) and the city’s oldest bar (Arnold’s). He also served as vice mayor under Mayor Mark Mallory.
He says Monzel has displayed a serious lack of leadership during his tenure and that the commission needs someone who can think about the city as “the hub” of the Tristate area.
“This is about the big picture,” Tarbell says. “There’s a reason why Cincinnati is the heart of this region.”
Tarbell says he’s running again in part because Feeney hasn’t been aggressive enough.
“I’ve never heard anything from him before this past couple weeks, and I haven’t heard anything since,” he says.
Feeney says he first became interested in running for the seat last year. He reached out to Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke last November, he says, but “we weren’t able to connect.” According to Feeney, the party wasn’t aware beforehand that he was filing to run for the spot, “but they weren’t aware of anyone.”
The North College Hill resident touts his four years experience working on the city’s zoning appeals board and his time as a Democratic precinct captain there. Feeney won the Democratic primary against Cincinnati educator and author Paul Komerek in May.
At the time, the Hamilton County Democratic Party didn’t seem very interested in the race, hemming and hawing about whether it would endorse either candidate in the primary.
Feeney said there wasn’t much interest because Democrats saw the race as unwinnable at that point.
“There’s this stigma that Hamilton County as a whole is very conservative and very Republican,” Feeney says. “But I’ve seen more conservative places, and you can still elect Democrats.”
Feeney pointed to Commissioner Todd Portune, the sole Democrat currently on the board, as well as the fact that Hamilton County swung Democratic in the last presidential election as reasons for optimism.
Hamilton County Democrats became a lot more optimistic themselves after the long and contentious fight over the so-called icon tax. In June, a cadre of the region’s business and cultural leaders, called the Cultural Facilities Task Force and headed by former P&G head Bob McDonald, drew up a plan to fund the renovation of two of the city’s most iconic and historic buildings. Under the plan, the county would put a .25 percent sales tax hike on the ballot for voters to approve. If passed, the levy would have funded repairs to both Union Terminal in the West End and Music Hall in Over-the-Rhine.
County commissioners had to approve the plan for it to go on the ballot. In a 2-1 vote that broke along party lines, the board decided to go with a separate, last minute plan that would hike sales taxes for a shorter duration and only fund the renovation of Union Terminal. Only Democrat Portune supported the original deal.
Both Monzel and fellow Republican commissioner Greg Hartmann were pressured by anti-tax groups, including local tea party groups and COAST, to jettison Music Hall from the plan. Both said the city didn’t put forth enough money for the renovations and that vital questions about the plan hadn’t been answered.
But the last-minute plan they voted to put on the ballot had questions attached as well, including the fate of historic tax credits and private donations that would have funded some of the renovations under the original plan. Some of those funds look to be off the table under the reduced plan.
The decision drew ire from Democrats and even some Republicans. Mayor John Cranley and Cincinnati City Council members loudly voiced their displeasure with the GOP commissioners’ move. Cranley said city residents were “being treated like second-class citizens” in the county.
Newly inspired, county Democrats looked to hustle a big name into the game to capitalize on the discontent and unseat Monzel. County Democratic Chair Burke’s choice was former Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken. But Luken, who is running a ace for probate judge, wasn’t interested unless Feeney would step down.
Feeney says Burke approached him about stepping down, but Feeney said no way, and the deadline to replace him on the ballot passed.
“They made it clear that the decision was mine and mine alone, and they’re sticking with me in that,” Feeney said of County Democrats.
Tarbell also signaled he was interested in running as the controversy raged, hitting Monzel on the icon tax.
“So much of what’s going on in Hamilton County is, ‘How much can we avoid? We will not allow you to vote on that tax,’ ” Tarbell said, referencing the icon plan. “That’s avoidance with a capital ‘A.’ Get folks in and let them express themselves.”
As Tarbell starts up his campaign, Feeney has called his candidacy “unnecessary,” even potentially harmful to the Democratic party.
“Tarbell has such an uphill battle to get thousands of voters to write his name on a line on the ballot,” Feeney said. “Worst case scenario is that it’s close, and Monzel edges ahead by 100 votes because of that.”
Feeney has said he’s working on ramping up his campaign, targeting areas inside and outside the city limits, including his home in North College Hill and other communities that “don’t necessarily vote Democrat, but should.”
He blasts Monzel for his icon tax decision and other issues, saying Monzel treats his seat “like a part-time job.”
“It’s an example of failed leadership,” Feeney said of Monzel’s icon tax plan vote, noting the original plan was drawn up by very prominent members of the business community.
“That’s hardly the first vote, though,” he said. “Chris Monzel has shown time and time again that he’s not interested in working with the city.”
Meanwhile, Republicans don’t seem to be worried much about the race. Monzel has yet to say much at all about Feeney, and Hamilton County GOP Chairman Alex Triantafilou has said the scramble shows county Democrats don’t have their act together.
Triantafilou cracked a joke to a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter earlier this month about Feeney’s past hobby: investigating reports of UFOs and ghosts.
“Perhaps he’s trying to summon ghost Democrats to vote for him,” Triantafilou said. “Otherwise, he’s toast.”
He had an equally dim view of Tarbell’s chances.
Democratic Chairman Burke has signaled reluctant support for Feeney, noting that he wished a more experienced candidate had a name on the ballot, but acknowledging that the party has endorsed Feeney, calling him “our candidate.” ©